Innovators who thought big in STEM

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STEM is driven by innovation, it is a symbol of progress and the problem solver to our greatest challenges. From the creation of the steam engine, discovering the molecular structure of DNA to unlocking our smartphones with facial recognition, one thing is constant: the individuals who think bigger push STEM discoveries further.

Thinking bigger is essential in making big leaps, inventing new products and turning sectors on their head. We are dedicating this blog to a few extraordinary people who thought bigger and went further.

Engineering

Over 2019 we saw the rise of The Extinction Rebellion; Greta Thunberg lead a global movement seeing countless students skipping school and taking to the streets in protest. Sir David Attenborough echoed these messages to world leaders at this year’s Davos forum and the UK Government was the first major economy to set new target to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

STEM industries are at the forefront of finding solutions both short term and long-term to this pressing problem.

As a case in point, there is an estimated 300 million tonnes of plastic in our oceans already, with 8 million tonnes added per year.

The problems caused by plastics are varied, from killing whales, as they mistake them as jellyfish and clog their digestive systems, to raising the levels of micro-plastics building up in the food chain. As plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade it is important to clean up our ecosystems to stop these short and long-term impacts.

Last year Lucy Hughes thought big, acted and went further in the fight against plastic pollution.

Single use plastics are considered a key issue, one which the University of Sussex graduate tackled head on. Often such issues are thought about in a linear way. Going further than the norm, she found a suitable waste product from the fishing industry, reducing the environmental impact from a whole different sector.

The properties of fish skin and scales have the ideal properties to make a durable, strong and water-resistant material. Through experimentation Lucy found a biological binding agent which would join the matter extracted from the fish skin to engineer the bioplastic she called MarinaTex. With a biodegrade period of four to six weeks in a household compost environment the material doesn’t remain in our environment and isn’t harmful even when broken down.

Ideal for substituting many single use plastics this could be a gamechanger in the fight to reduce plastic waste. For her work Lucy was awarded the UK Dyson Award 2019.

Lucy’s mindset went beyond the standard engineering process; she saw the whole picture and confronted numerous issues. As a result of thinking bigger she has gone further in her field and created a novel, improved solution.

Lucy commented “For me, MarinaTex represents a commitment to material innovation and selection by incorporating sustainable, local and circular values into design. As creators, we should not limit ourselves to designing to just form and function, but rather form, function and footprint.”

Science

Thinking bigger can challenge stigmas and force essential change. A standout example of this is the case of Rosalind Franklin.

She persisted in her research and contribution to the discovery of the molecular structure of the DNA double helix. Fifteen months before J. D. Watson and F. Crick published their famous description of the molecular structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling (who was supervised by Franklin) took the crucial X-ray diffraction image labelled Photo 51. From this photo it was calculated that DNA forms a helix, which was an essential piece of evidence that Watson and Crick needed to work out the molecular structure of DNA.

The science of DNA and following understandings stemming from this has led to the discovery of some of the most important methods used in healthcare and scientific practice. However, this inspired piece of scientific discovery would not have been achievable without Franklin.

The discovery of the structure of DNA resulted in James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins sharing the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

Franklin was an inspirational individual who forged her own path in science, she is often regarded as a beacon of progress for women in STEM. She thought big, did not let the social ‘norms’ of the era stop her and her persistence and intelligence pushed her in her work and helped pave the way for more women pioneers.

Our blogs on the women changing the world and those who are helping change tomorrow’s world highlight just a few ways women make invaluable contributions to STEM.

Clinical

The key properties of adult stem cells were defined by Ernest McCulloch and James Till in the 1960s through experiments in mice. Subsequent work in 1981 by Martin Evans and Matthew Kaufman allowed the isolation of embryonic stem cell.

It has been a challenge to use embryonic stem cells in scientific research, as some believe it to be unethical because sourcing them requires extraction from an embryo. However, adult stem cells cannot differentiate into numerous types of cell in the human body as embryonic cells can so the possibilities of research and discovery are restricted.

One scientist wanted to unlock the unique potential of embryonic stem cells as well as finding a solution to the ethical concerns around embryonic cell use. In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University devised a method of making embryonic-like cells from adult cells. His team reprogramed ordinary adult cells by inserting four key genes – forming “induced pluripotent stem cells” that had the same properties as embryonic cells.

For his pioneering work, Yamanaka with colleague John Gurdon, was presented with the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.

This revolutionary work has blown open the doors for the use of stem cells in clinical treatments and healthcare science. Yamanaka was the one who thought about and enabled the solution for both the ethical and scientific factors, which unleashed the potential and pushed Stem research further.

Thinking big results in going further and these individuals are testament to this.

It will be exciting to see how these discoveries continue to evolve over the years and learn about the individuals who take these ideas and push them on to the next level.

At SRG we believe in this philosophy, it is in-fact one of our values, from how we innovate, go to market, engage with people and work with clients and candidates, we think bigger and go further year on year. If it’s time for you to think bigger and go further in your STEM career, or if you’re taking that first step into your STEM career, you can apply for our job opportunities here.

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs.

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